Group meets at theater to give autistic children chance to see new movies

A monthly movie screening is moving a group of area families.

Monthly “sensory friendly” screenings for autistic children – with the theater lights turned up, sound turned down, and the youngsters free to move around – have begun at the Grand 14 Cinema at The Market Common In Myrtle Beach. The next showing, “Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return,” plays at 10 a.m. Saturday.

Families in Horry County with autistic children are welcome to join the Champions of Autism Network, a support group associated with the Medical University of South Carolina’s s developmental behavioral pediatrics division and the Lowcountry Autism Foundation, both based in Charleston. Besides monthly meetings at the Horry County Memorial Library Surfside Beach branch – the next one is 5:30 p.m. May 15 – this series of monthly movies, begun April 12 with “Rio 2,” have given another outlet of fun for these families.

As defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. These maladies affect each person differently, ranging in degree from very mild to severe and seen through problems in social interaction.

The support group for Horry County families began this year with coordinator, Becky Large of Surfside Beach, who said her son, who turns 11 in June, was diagnosed at age 7 with Asperger’s syndrome, when the family lived in New Jersey.

Large voiced hopes of networking with other families who cope with autism to build “a centralized organization” for this support.

“It’s a lot,” she said, “to wrap your arms around when trying to find services and supports for your autistic child and still keep the family and household going, with work tossed into the mix somehow.”

Large also hopes to connect with therapists and other support services that such families need and find more means for interaction, such as equine therapy, 1-on-1 applied behavior analysis therapy, and other ideas for speech, recreation and education enhancement, as well as for “respite care” – so parents have a break from caregiving to do some errands in the day.

Question | What got the force going to get this local group together?

Answer | At a Lowcountry Autism Forum in Charleston last August, I met the executive director of the Lowcountry Autism Foundation, and I was speaking with him about how down there ... there’s a ton of groups, all in Charleston, and I said I live in Myrtle Beach, and that there’s nothing up here. ...

He asked if I would be interested in starting a parent group. ... We started meeting in February. .... I know people who are so happy and grateful just to know they’re not alone.

Q. | How diverse is autism and the challenges that parents share as they bear things beyond their control?

A. | There’s all the different functioning levels, but there is this common thread of temper tantrums and relentless nature of the malady ... that families with a child on the autism spectrum go through, and the challenges for the children.

Q. | What can families and everyone learn most from people with autism?

A. | One of the hardest things to overcome is judgment by others. ... You get into a situation with a child with autism, and you have to go to the store with this child. These children have sensory issues, whether it’s with sight, smell or sound, and they can have a meltdown, when they’re just kicking and screaming, and people are looking at you. ... I would hope that if you were there, you would see there’s something much greater going on.

The other thing is, just because children with autism are engaging with adults, that does not mean they can get along with their peers. ... The earlier integration you can give to these children, the better off they are in the family.

Q. | When Doug Flutie was quarterback of the Buffalo Bills – he also started his own autism foundation ( www.dougflutiejrfoundation.org) – I remember seeing a biography about him, I think on ESPN, and he spoke of the love he’s happy to share for all of his life with his son, and I never forgot seeing such parental devotion and commitment. How do families turn something that can be perceived as sad and a challenge into a lifelong positive?

A. | It’s just generally the makeup of the people and the parents. It takes practice; you need to walk up to every day with a positive attitude. You have to try and turn it around. It’s not easy as a parent with an autistic child. I’m blessed with a high-functioning child. ...

I call the condition “the black hole of the self” – it’s always about them, and everything comes back to them. They don’t recognize facial or body language. ... It’s kind of a social communications disorder.

But I’m a pretty empathetic person, and I have been given this gift of a child to shepherd through life, and ... I can help this child learn. ... It’s our job to teach them, and if we can’t, to find somebody who can. ...

Everybody has challenges ... and everybody has problems.

Q. | How did diagnosis of your son come about?

A. | It took us a long while, which is not unusual. ... Somebody told us to see a developmental pediatrician: That’s the best-kept secret ever. It can take 12 months to get that kind of help, because there are so few of them. ...

Horry County is a great county; they have a lot of support. They have behavioral therapists who will come to your home, and help set up tools for the home.

Q. | What was the genesis of these sensory friendly movies in Myrtle Beach?

A. | I called the theaters, and Duane Farmer at the Grand 14 said he was all for it. He said there was another theater in their corporation that does it with great success. He has just embraced it. Last month, there were eight children in there who had never seen a movie before, and they ranged in age from 3 to 10. ... They were in the theater, and they were able to get up and move around.

Other issues with autism might be ADHD, bipolar disorder and other chemical imbalances, so there can be other things going on, so to have a child sit engaged, watching a movie, is impossible.

Q. | How are these family friendly movies selected each month?

A. | The way Mr. Farmer has chosen them, it’s always the morning after the movie opens.

Q. | What types of movies resonate most with children who have autism?

A. | I’m old-fashioned: Cartoons are the best.